by Marc Rome / May 2006 issue of Socialist Action Newspaper
On April 26, Dr. John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA), arrived in Washington. D.C., riding a wagon pulled by two mules, a reminder of the post-Civil War broken promise that each freed slave would get 40 acres and a mule. He was there to represent 62,000 NBFA members and supporters to highlight the plight of Black farmers today.
Together with the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association (BFAA) and several civil rights organizations, they held a rally that drew a small but dedicated crowd.
The rally’s central demands included a moratorium on Black farm foreclosures and full payment by the federal government of $2.3 billion owed in restitution. Of that amount, less than half has been awarded to 13,000 Black farmers, leaving empty-handed the remaining 81,000 from 44 states.
The 94,000 litigants include Black farmers who had farmed or attempted to farm between 1981 and 1996. During those years they filed racial discrimination complaints against the Department of Agriculture (USDA). Due to Reagan-era budget cuts, the USDA Office of Civil Rights (OCR) was dismantled in 1983 and stopped processing all discrimination claims.
When the OCR was reopened by the Clinton administration in 1996, “the claims were thrown into boxes and nothing was done with them,” Gary Grant, president of BFAA, told Socialist Action.
The restitution demand stems from a 1997 federal court case in which Black farmer Timothy Pigford filed a class-action lawsuit against Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, alleging racist loan practices by the USDA and its associated local agencies between 1981 and 1996.
According to a report by a non-profit investigative organization, the Environmental Working Group, “the USDA Commission on Small Farms admitted that ‘[t]he history of discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture … is well documented,’ finding that ‘indifference and blatant discrimination experienced by minority farmers in their interactions with USDA programs and staff … has been a contributing factor to the dramatic decline of Black farmers over the last several decades.’”
The main issue contributing to Black farmers’ decline is rooted in the reforged class structure that followed the abolition of chattel slavery after the Civil War. The war left the South’s infrastructure in ruins. Stripped of its main source of surplus value (profit)—slave labor—the Southern economy became subordinate to the new king, Northern industrial capitalism.
Where agriculture resumed in the South, plantation owners turned to former slaves, as the largest pool of cheap farm labor. After Congress brought Reconstruction to an end in the late 1870s, and federal troops were removed from the South, the planters were allowed to use terror to strip Blacks of the rights they had won, and to subject them to semi-feudal conditions (and mounting debts) under the sharecropping system.
Nonetheless, despite the most adverse social and economic conditions, Black farm ownership grew throughout the latter part of the 19th century, and by the 1920s Black farmers numbered more than 900,000. Along the way, they would face Ku Klux Klan murder and violence (often tolerated and even encouraged by state and local governments and police) as well as the torching of courthouses that destroyed Black farmers’ land deeds.
Veldon Hall, the USDA’s former Farm Services Agency (FSA) director, revealed that this Klan mentality is still alive today when in 1996 he “showed a noose to a black co-worker at a gathering to welcome her to the office,” according to a March 2005 article in The Nation.
Black farmers’ more enduring, insidious, and powerful adversary has been the “invisible hand” of the market and the government agencies administering federal farm programs. The latter, under the leadership of both Democratic and Republican administrations, have invariably manipulated that “hand” to the advantage of predominately white, rich farmers and absentee landowners.
Significant decline in Black ownership of farms began throughout the years of the Roosevelt-era Farm Program, when his Secretary of Agriculture, Claude R. Wickard, exalted the New Deal president for having “rehabilitated thousands of farm families.” However, there were 200,000 less farms in 1939 than in 1929. Furthermore, between 1930 and 1945 Black sharecroppers went from virtual peonage to outright privation when more than one-third of a million were “reformed” off the land altogether.
Approaching the 1950s, one clearly sees the ascendance of absentee-owned, large-scale agriculture, which swept aside any hope for the small farmer to compete on the global market with the new “farmers”—banks, corporations, and insurance companies. The process of land concentration into the hands of an increasingly smaller number of capitalists paralleled the developing concentration of ownership in the economy as a whole.
This trend, which continues today, assured that the already struggling Black farmers would continue to lose land at a rapid pace. Thus, today there are only about 18,000 Black farm operators, owning less than 1 percent of all farmland (7 million acres), a decline of 98 percent from their peak of land ownership in the 1920s.
Meanwhile, the dominance of agribusiness is guaranteed by farm subsidies, which, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a corporate watchdog group, “is expected to cost [taxpayers] at least $171 billion over 10 years, and the biggest slices of the pie are still likely to go to wealthy corporate farmers.”
TCS goes on to say that ”[t]axpayer-financed subsidies for some crops have encouraged the largest farms to keep producing more in an endless quest for even more federal funds. This insatiable thirst has led the largest growers (and subsidy recipients) to gobble up as much land as they can and consequently drive many small family farm operations out of business.
“The overproduction then leads to a glut of products on the market, depressed prices, and sometimes the requirement for even more taxpayer dollars to be used to remove the surplus of goods from the market.”
With little hope of competing on the market, Black farmers seized the chance to gain “long-term minority contracts” in New Orleans offered by the federal government following Hurricane Katrina. However, consistent with the pattern of institutionalized government racism laid bare by the storm’s aftermath, most contracts went to giant food distribution corporations, like Sysco.
Therefore, the NBFA has been negotiating tobacco contracts with China and food contracts with Venezuela and Cuba. Dr. John Boyd, president of NBFA, told Socialist Action that during a visit to Cuba to discuss a $20 million deal with its government, Fidel Castro said to him, “Mr. Boyd, the U.S. government could do what I’m trying to do with you, and turn around the existence of Black farmers by contracting with you all.”
The contract with Cuba—which would include goods such as corn, soybeans, rice, wheat, and chicken—is facing a major obstacle: the U.S. government has refused to give the farmers a shipping license to guarantee transport. The only recourse would be to contract with distribution giants such as ADM and ConAgra, whose high prices would significantly cut into the contract amount.
Ultimately, political solutions will be necessary to reverse the decline of Black farmers and small farmers in general. Many white and Black farmers have a continued strategy of relying on Democratic (and sometimes Republican) politicians, whose interests unswervingly reside with agribusiness.
The way in which history has pointed a forward course for farmers was through the building of a workers party, anchored in the unions, which allied with farmers and made real gains fighting against their common capitalist oppressors.